EL PASO, Texas -- Cases of Covid-19 are spreading rapidly as a fourth wave takes over the nation, much of it sparked by the Delta variant. The spread is so alarming, Texas school districts and some communities are defying Gov. Greg Abbott's executive order restricting governmental and educational entities from imposing face mask mandates.
Now the stage is set for local governments, like El Paso and local school districts, to go head-to-head with state government on an issue aimed at protecting everyone from a virus that has already claimed close to 2,800 Borderland lives.
The return to mask mandates is proving to be a divisive issue, with El Pasoans who are for and against the return to mask mandates. El Paso Health Authority Dr. Hector Ocaranza is using his power to order a mask mandate throughout the county for any indoor activities to try to stop the spread of Covid before hospitals here are overwhelmed.
"Because the concern iis rising positive cases and the vulnerability of our community to the complications of Covid-19." said Ocaranza.
The health order is in direct defiance to the governor's order. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton went on record saying he will go after any communities and school districts who go against the governor's orders. In response, El Paso city representatives as well as county commissioners and school districts have waged an all out battle against state government, filing lawsuits against the governor.
"City Council has approved authority for the city attorney's office to file suit against the governor in order to argue about whether he has the authority to prohibit Dr. Ocaranza and similar local authorities from instituting health mandates and other health measures at the local level," said Karla Neiman, El Paso's city attorney.
Neiman's office also filed for a temporary restraining order seeing a declaratory judgment against the governor's office. County Court Judge Ruben Morales approved the restraining order, paving the way for the mandate to go forward.
EPISD, SISD and other surrounding school districts are defying the governor's order as well by issuing mask mandates for students in classrooms. The mask mandate for El Paso County wide went into effect Wednesday. In schools, that mandate went into effect Thursday.
The governor himself contracted Covid-19, the same week El Paso school districts and local governments approved their mandates.
However, not all businesses are in line with the order, claiming not enough is known about local mandates and asking if the order could be overturned by the governor's office. In response to the uncertainty, the public health department of El Paso re-instituted teams of Covid-19 taks force members, with these teams focused on education, leaving enforcement to the hands of law enforcement.
"This time around the health education task force is going out by themselves, on their own and they are talking to the managers of the establishments. For example, bars or grocery stores.,“ said Angela Mora, El Paso's public health department director.
If those businesses are found to be in non-compliance, law enforcement is notified. The fine for a person caught violating the mask mandate can be a misdemeanor citation of $500.
As of late Thursday night, the Texas Supreme Court dismissed Abbott's request to ban mask mandates in school districts, meaning those mask mandates across the state can remain in place for now, including the ones in El Paso.
This happened because of a technicality. The state Supreme Court dismissed the governor's request because justices cited a provision that requires matters to go to an appeals court before it reaches the Supreme Court. That's why the ruling from a lower court stays in place. There are several businesses that have not imposed the new mask mandate yet as they wait for clarification, which could lead to confusion among those entering businesses.
ABC-7 Sunday Xtra host Saul Saenz invited both Ocaranza and Mora to answer questions viewers may have regarding any confusion surrounding the last face mask mandate, the third Covid vaccine dose, and what implications the Borderland may face if people do not wear a mask or vaccine against the sometimes deadly virus.